AUGUSTA — The state Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would temporarily freeze the approval of publicly financed virtual charter schools.

The Senate voted 22-13 to enact a moratorium on virtual schools amid concerns about the effectiveness of institutions in which students receive most or all of their education in online classes. Similar legislation has been considered in other states, which have been beset by concerns about the oversight and operation of such schools by for-profit corporations.

The Illinois Legislature recently enacted a similar moratorium on virtual schools.

Meanwhile, the Maine Charter School Commission met Tuesday to discuss a new process for considering applications from virtual charter schools. Previously all charter school applications, both virtual and brick-and-mortar schools, used the same request for proposal process.

Two Republicans, Sen. Patrick Flood, of Winthrop, and Sen. Thomas Saviello, of Wilton, voted with the Democratic majority Tuesday, as did Yarmouth independent Sen. Richard Woodbury. The vote margin is two votes shy of the 24 votes needed to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage. The governor has not taken a position on the bill, but has advocated for virtual schools. An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram found that the LePage administration had leaned on virtual school companies to influence policy initiatives.

Most Senate Republicans objected to the Maine proposal, arguing that the Maine Charter School Commission is already thoroughly vetting applicants. Republicans said the bill, L.D. 995, would effectively halt much needed educational reforms.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said Tuesday that the bill was unnecessary. He noted that the charter commission had already denied two applications for charter schools amid concerns about their business and education models.

“This is micromanaging,” Langley said. “Let’s let them do their jobs.”

Democrats countered that the state should take extra care before approving virtual schools funded by tax money.

“We have to get this right,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, the Democratic majority leader.

The mostly party-line vote on the bill reflects the growing political divide over education, particularly charter schools, which in Maine receive a slice of public education funding.

The measure, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would prohibit creation of both full-time and for-profit virtual charter schools until the Maine Charter School Commission can draft and report out best practices for the schools. Alfond, who has previously supported digital learning initiatives, told lawmakers in April that there was mounting evidence that virtual charter schools underperform. He cited a study by the National Education Policy Center at Western Michigan University which found that one in three K12 Inc. schools reported making adequate yearly progress in 2010.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has said the proposals are designed to halt the development of virtual schools. K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published on Sept. 2, that showed how they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and that their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

K12 has been at the center of controversies in other states, including Colorado, Tennessee and Florida. Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among a host of states that have considered enacting moratoriums on virtual charter schools.

In January the charter school commission rejected virtual charter school applications proposed by K12 Inc. and Connections Learning.

The day after the charter commission decisions, LePage held a pair of news conferences during which he said charter commission members were intimidated by advocates for public schools. He also called for the resignation of charter commission members who were afraid to do their jobs. L.D. 995 now heads to the House for additional votes.

At the Charter School Commission meeting, the commissioners said they needed a new application process for virtual charter schools because of the problems that have cropped up in the state. Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the three main changes are 1.) requiring the schools to spell out how their local board would be independent from the for-profit education providers, 2.) that students would have weekly, in-person interaction with other students, and 3.) cost breakdowns from the national companies managing the schools.

“You are a business, and I can’t let that side of it go,” Lapoint told the representatives of K12 and Connections who were at the commission meeting Tuesday.

“There’s a conflict in looking at things. I have a concern about a corporation in business to make money and an academic process that we have to education. We have to blend those together,” she said.

Several times during the meeting, commission members said they also wanted an independent school director who would be directly accountable to the local board. Under the comprehensive services plan, the provider would post the job, vet the applications and provide a board with the final two or three candidates for possible hire. The board would hire a final choice, and could fire the director.

The board’s role was a sticking point for some of the commissioners.

“I did not see the commitment of the board,” Lapoint said. “It’s very easy for a board to sit back and let you people do all the work.”

But Amy Carlisle, president of the local board for the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, countered that their board “was not a rubber stamp” and had decided they wanted K12 to do all the budget and human resources work, too.

“We feel strongly in a model of a comprehensive plan,” she said, saying it’s the standard model for other virtual charter schools across the nation. “We don’t think who employs the head of school is the crux of the issue. We believe the outcomes are the most important.”

The commissioners plan to finalize the draft RFP for virtual charter schools by the July meeting; the next round of RFPs is scheduled to be sent out Aug. 31.

Portland Press Herald staff writer Noel K. Gallagher contributed to this report.

Steve Mistler — 620-7016
[email protected]
Twitter: @stevemistler

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